David Snoxell is Coordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group.
The 1966 UK/US agreement making the British Indian Ocean Territory (Chagos Islands) available for defence needs for a period of 50 years ends on 29th December 2016, but can be continued for a further 20 years. Renegotiation of this agreement provides a unique opportunity to resolve the problems that have beset successive Governments since the creation of BIOT in 1965. The three main issues are resettlement of those Chagossians wishing to return, Mauritius’ sovereignty claim and the future of the Marine Protected Area (MPA).
My piece on ConservativeHome in January argued that the Government could honour its commitment “to ensure a fair settlement of this long standing dispute” (William Hague, March 2010) before the May election. The KPMG study into resettlement was published on 10th February 2015. It reported that there were no reasons why resettlement should not take place. But the study was too late, the Government said, for a decision to be taken before the election. So further studies into cost and demand for resettlement were initiated, leading to another consultation with “interested parties” with a 27th October deadline for responses. Nearly a year after the KPMG report was published, a decision on resettlement is still awaited.
In October, the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group elected Andrew Rosindell to succeed Jeremy Corbyn as Chairman. At its recent 52nd meeting the APPG noted that it was three years since Mr Hague had announced a review of the resettlement policy. With a year to go before the renewal of the UK/US agreement, it was high time the Government came to a decision. The APPG, established eight years ago, has 41 members from all ten political parties which may be unique in the history of APPGs. Members have been assiduous in pursuing the issues in debates, Parliamentary Questions and letters to Ministers. They argue that a condition of renewal of the agreement should be a US contribution to the costs of resettlement.
The delay may partly be due to the FCO waiting for a Supreme Court ruling on the Chagossian case, heard last June. It was an appeal against the Law Lords’ majority judgment in 2008, upholding the legality of the 2004 Orders in Council which had removed the Chagossians’ right of abode. Lawyers for the Chagossians demonstrated that there had been a failure to disclose vital documents, which showed that the 2002 feasibility study (concluding that long term resettlement was not feasible) was flawed. A ruling is expected in January. But whatever the court decides there is nothing to stop the FCO restoring the right of abode, in the same way that the Foreign Secretary restored it in 2000 following a High Court judgement. The decision to allow a pilot resettlement, as proposed by KPMG, is primarily one of cost and above all political will.
The issue of sovereignty should also feature in the discussions with the US. The UK is committed to returning the Territory to Mauritius when it is no longer needed for defence. Only Diego Garcia has ever been needed. So there is no reason why the Outer Islands could not be returned to Mauritius. In March 2015 a tribunal of five international judges upheld Mauritius’ right to eventual sovereignty of the Chagos Islands.
The MPA, declared on 1st April 2010, has remained in legal and practical limbo. The same tribunal found that it was in breach of UNCLOS as the UK had not fulfilled the basic purpose of consultation with Mauritius. Academic lawyers generally regard the MPA as unlawful. Illegal fishing has increased substantially because enforcement is inadequate. An accommodation with Mauritius would resolve the legal issues and give the MPA international recognition and clout.
As the APPG concluded in a letter to The Times on 7th November, marking BIOT’s 50th anniversary: “Fifty years on Britain should dispose of this albatross and rectify the injustices and human rights violations of the past”.